This is always a hard sell. When I lecture, this is the point at which people start looking at their hands, or get up and leave. I’ve never really figured out why. Maybe it’s the word “outline” itself, conjuring visions of roman numerals and the deadly dull outlines we were forced to write in eighth grade. Maybe it’s because a number of famous writers claim never to use them. Or perhaps the idea of working from anything but a totally right-brained perspective seems stuffy and stultifying to our artistic natures. Whatever the reason, beginning writers don’t like outlines. And that, I believe, is why most first novels take so long to write.
An outline is a map. Actually, it’s more than a map. It’s a GPS for the journey a novel takes. It helps the writer get from point A to point Z without making a lot of wrong turns. It is essentially a device of plot, which for some is difficult in itself, being a left-brained activity. If you have no plot, you may not need to use an outline, mainly because no publisher is going to buy your book. If you do have plot, an outline will show you the general shape of that plot. Does the action build, or is it one-note? Are there peaks and valleys, moments of humor and/or romance, or just nonstop action? (This, incidentally, may work in movies, but unrelieved action tends to be boring on the printed page) Does one event lead directly to another? In other words, does your plot make sense?
Writers who claim not to use outlines either write the same book again and again (which means their outlines are in their heads, carved in stone at the expense of their creativity), enjoy fiddling and rewriting endlessly, or write books that don’t hold up to much scrutiny. The example that springs most readily to mind is Anne Rice. The brilliance of her writing is compelling, but at the end of every book of hers that I read, I am left with the feeling that the novel could have been so much better had it been planned more carefully and edited judiciously (she famously refuses to be edited).
A novel is not entirely an example of free expression. Neither is a musical composition or a painting. There has to be an underpinning of WHAT IS POSSIBLE, even if you’re writing about unicorns. If your protagonist falls into quicksand and you have an Army SWAT team pull him out by helicopter, you have to come up with ways to make that possible. Is your hero part of the team? Is he someone so important that a bizarre rescue would be attempted? Just as you can’t–really, you must not–introduce a character and then never mention him again (the Rosencrantz & Gildenstern syndrome), you also should never introduce a plot element that remains unresolved. An outline will show you missteps before they occur.
Most people (usually inexperienced writers) who think they have a story really only have the BEGINNING of a story. An outline will show you where the holes in your story are. (They’re almost always in the middle). In a typical mystery, the set-up leads to a number of clues that build upon one another until the protagonist can deduce whodunit and how the setup was created. If all you have is the setup and the ending, you will have a hard row to hoe coming up with the intricate turns of plot essential to the mystery format. An outline will save you time and headaches.
If you’re going to write only one book in your life, you can fool around with it all you want. Take a year to write a chapter. Change the setting from the Old West to a dystopian future. Experiment with the age and sex of your protagonist. Write part of it as a slice of life, and another as a thriller. Go crazy. But if you plan to write for a living, you do have to think about finishing your work in a timely manner. As it is, most of us work for around one cent an hour; if your wage is lower than that, you might want to think about speeding up your output. An outline helps you do that. The time it takes to think out and write the outline is well worth it in terms of ultimate time saved.
An outline can be a lifeline if you get stuck. Nobody plans on getting Writer’s Block, but it happens to the most industrious of us: We get sick, we have some family emergency, our hearts get broken… occasionally we all get kiboshed by the fickle finger of fate, and when that happens, the last thing most of us want to concentrate on is plotting a novel. And it doesn’t have to be some big event that takes you out of writing mode. Sometimes the inspirational muse just flies away. With an outline, you at least know what to write next. Granted, you may not be able to write it brilliantly, but you can at least get it down (and fix it later). A lifeline. Truly.
Finally, here’s a tip to shorten your “start-up” time at your next writing session (which, incidentally, should rarely be longer than one day): Write a thumbnail sketch of the next scene you’re going to write before you end for the day. This is a sort of mini-outline within your major outline. It enables you to start writing the minute you sit down to write, without any “think” time.
This series is about FLOW and the secrets to achieving effortless writing, aka “inspiration”. I posit that inspiration occurs a lot more frequently when one’s writing habits are conducive to it, and the techniques in this series will help develop those techniques.
Next time: Write Fast, Write Badly (I mean it!)